Equity and the arguments over reopening Madison schools

What we’re saying, and what we’re missing, as we consider a return to in-person learning.

What we’re saying, and what we’re missing, as we consider a return to in-person learning.

Illustration by Shaysa Sidebottom.

As the weather gets better, as outdoor restrictions for gathering decrease in Dane County, and with the recent announcement that, as of April 5, everyone 16 and older in Wisconsin is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s easy to believe the worst is behind us. 

It’s true that Wisconsin is making great strides with vaccinations as the state that has administered the second highest percentage of vaccines it has received. And at 29.1 percent, as of April 9, Dane County trails quickly behind other Wisconsin counties that have the highest rates of residents who have completed the vaccine series (1st: Bayfield County, 2nd: Menominee County, 3rd: Door County, 4th: Iron County). 

However, although a quarter of residents in Dane County have completed the vaccine series, only 3.6 percent of residents ages 16-17 have been fully vaccinated, 16.4 percent of ages 18 to 24, 26.6 percent of ages 25 to 34, 30.1 percent of ages 35 to 44, 30.2 percent of ages 45 to 54, and 29.3 percent of ages 55 to 64 have been fully vaccinated (again, as of April 9). Moreover, despite the hopeful news that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was extremely effective in 12- to 15-year-olds during a clinical trial, we do not yet have an authorized vaccine for children under 16. And they make up 20 percent of Dane County’s population. 

That means that as the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) enters the fourth phase of its reopening plan on April 13, we still have a ways to go before all our teachers, staff, and students are completely protected.

And families have good reason to continue being wary. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most children and teens with COVID-19 experience mild to no symptoms, but youth can still develop severe symptoms and spread the virus. Just last week, 21 children and workers, and 14 family members linked to a Dane County child care center tested positive with COVID-19. And even as vaccinations accelerate, the positive test rate continues to rise. 

When MMSD began its phased return to in-person instruction on March 9, about 33,700 vaccine doses had been administered to Dane County residents. The return began with Kindergarten students, who had the option of attending four full days of in-person instruction. Then, on March 16, first and second graders were offered the same option, and on March 23, 4K students could return to two full days of in-person instruction. The next grade level set to return to campus is third grade, on April 13. After that, according to the reopening plan on MMSD’s website, all grades will have at least two days of in-person instruction by April 27. 

And as one might imagine, parents are making their opinions heard on social media. Some praise the reopening and others insist not enough teachers and staff have been vaccinated to do so safely, despite arguments that MMSD satisfies recommendations from various agencies. Teachers and staff of MMSD also seem divided on the topic. While some have been eager to return, others participated in a “teach-out” on March 5, in which educators provided virtual instruction outside of their building and voiced their concerns about the phased return. Leading up to the teach-out, Madison’s teacher union, Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), released a framework of terms its members believed were critical to address before returning to in-person instruction. 

Some of the items MTI lists in its framework are about establishing more clearly defined safety protocols and expectations. Other items ask the district to redress past issues staff experienced, including by providing additional compensation for employees who have been working in person prior to March 1. Others still seek commitment from the district to continue following current policies around teacher planning time, and duty free lunch and scheduling. In the framework, MTI also insists that MMSD must make every effort to provide employment stability for staff whether they are in person or remote, including providing accommodations for individual and family medical as well as child care needs. Essentially, many of the items listed are meant to protect staff and support them in doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. 

The last item in the MTI framework reads:  

MTI shares a vision with MMSD where our students, families and staff do not return to the old normal. While we are currently in a health crisis, we must not lose sight of the future. To move our work forward we will engage in: 

  • Joint advocacy for full funding of public education

  • Advocacy at the state and national level on educational issues

  • A joint committee focused on attracting and retaining staff of color to MMSD

  • Joint committees focused on innovative and equitable practices around curriculum and educational and employment policies.

In other words, the framework was not only meant to call attention to the immediate health risks related to COVID-19, but to center and address issues of inequity in education that already existed back when everything was “normal.” Interestingly, both proponents of returning to school and proponents of remaining virtual invoke equity among their main motivations.  

The arguments for a quick return

One perspective on schooling during the pandemic is that students must return to learning in person as swiftly as possible. A common argument for doing so is that the most vulnerable student populations who already face disparities in education—Black students, Latinx students, English Language Learners, poor students, and students with disabilities—will fall even more behind because of the learning loss they have experienced during the past year of remote instruction. For example, students without access to high-speed internet or other technology, or without an adult at home who can support their learning, are further disadvantaged by remote instruction where teachers cannot control the environment. In a place like Wisconsin, the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked as having the nation’s widest achievement gap between Black and white students in 2019, it’s unsurprising that this perspective would sway families and educators to take the risk of re-opening.

Another issue of equity from this perspective is that students and families from vulnerable populations rely on schools for more than learning, and they will be disproportionately affected by closures. For instance, students may rely on schools for meals if they experience food insecurity. This concern was highlighted in September 2020, when MMSD announced that it would be providing free breakfast and lunch to families in need at 40 pick up sites for as long as students were learning from home. Additionally, with data showing that the hardest hit financially by the pandemic were adults with lower incomes, those without a college degree, and Black and Hispanic Americans, the child care that schools provide during the day can make a big difference.

There are myriad other reasons the pro-reopening folks cite for the pressing need to return to school—from the important role teachers play as mandatory reporters of abuse, to the emotional and mental well-being that attending school can support. However, the main justifications noted above are most often invoked when discussing equity.

Is the rush really about equity?

Essentially, these arguments suggest that returning to school is an issue of equity, because it is most beneficial for our most vulnerable students (Black students, Latinx students, English Language Learners, poor students, and students with disabilities). However, the main challenge to this perspective is that it does not actually take into account the opinions of these populations and what they plan to do when in-person instruction is available again. The results from MMSD’s second returning preference survey showed that of the 68 percent of elementary, middle, and high school students who indicated that they would select in-person learning, white students are more likely to return. 

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, renowned scholar of culturally relevant pedagogy and critical race theory, Professor Emerita and the former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at UW-Madison, does not mince words about who returning to school benefits most. In a January article for Madison365, headlined “Stop using Black children as an excuse to open your schools,” Ladson-Billings wrote the following: 

In truth, the parents clamoring the most about opening schools are the parents of the most privileged children. They are concerned that their children’s resumes are being tarnished by missing all of this school. They are comparing their children’s progress with that of their private school peers who they perceive to be moving ahead of them. They are concerned that their kids’ inability to participate in varsity sports and athletics may be hurting their scholarship chances…Don’t pretend you have some deep conviction to the education of Black children. If that’s your motivation, where was it last year when school was in session?

She goes on to say that parents of privilege wanting to see their children succeed is not a bad reason to want schools to reopen, but that obscuring this true motivation behind disingenuous concern for vulnerable students needs to stop.

The argument for waiting

Another perspective on schooling in the time of COVID-19 is that there are reasons enough to postpone the reopening of schools, and many of the people making these arguments also focus on equity. COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed communities of color, who have suffered higher rates of positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths since the pandemic began, including in Wisconsin. So, one argument to slow down on reopening is that members of these communities should not feel pressure to further risk their safety by sending their children back to school. MTI also highlights similar health concerns for Black and brown employees of MMSD, particularly in response to the racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates in Wisconsin.  

Another reason MTI highlights in its stance on waiting is a desire to resist returning to “the old normal.” Prior to the pandemic, schools were not adequately serving their most vulnerable student populations, as measurements ranging from test scores to literacy and incarceration rates clearly indicate. In her Madison365 article, Dr. Ladson-Billings illustrates how schools have been sites of violence for Black students: 

School was not the haven of comfort and safety that some professionals try to pretend they are. Yes, some children live in unsafe and unstable homes, but rather than solve their problems, some students find that school exacerbates their problems. School is the place some students are stigmatized by standing in the “free lunch” line or being pulled out of class for special services. School is the place where their academic struggles are magnified and what they don’t have (i.e., two parents at home, new clothes, fancy school supplies) is on constant display. School is a place where adults yell at them for not knowing an answer or not completing an assignment or project. No, school can be a place of a special kind of violence.

Rather than return to normal, some educators and scholars insist that we use this unprecedented time to reimagine what education is for, how it can look, where it happens, and take steps to transform it in creative and bold ways that fundamentally center the communities that have been neglected. Rather than uphold in-person schooling as an unparalleled paradigm for learning, we should remember that school wasn’t that great for a lot of students, and recognize the benefits that emerged from remote learning.  

UW-Madison professor Maxine McKinney de Royston and Northwestern University professor Shirin Vossoughi provide ample reasons for why “calls to return to ‘normal,’ even after a vaccine, are regressive.” In a January piece for Truthout, they insist that fixating on students’ learning loss is reductive and reinforces outdated theories of learning, such as the notion that learning only happens in schools. In fact, they point out, learning “happens all the time and everywhere.” McKinney de Royston and Vossoughi also challenge the misguided belief that learning is something one can acquire and lose, like a simple toy. Although knowledge and understanding are strengthened the more we use and practice them, they write, “meaningful learning is rarely ‘lost.’” They also question the idea that students who already struggled in school will fall further behind. Behind in what? Behind in arbitrary, age-based grade levels and abstract number systems that symbolize excellence or failure? Behind in ableist and racist notions of intelligence? Behind their white and upper-class peers on which the definitions of achievement and success have been based?

That is not to say that we should dismiss the achievement gap (or, as Dr. Ladson-Billings calls it, the education debt). Rather, by recognizing the complexity, adaptability, and nuances of learning, we can make decisions about schooling that do not underestimate or undermine all that our Black students, Latinx students, English Language Learners, poor students, students with disabilities, and their families are capable of. Even during a pandemic. 

What students have lost, and what they’ve never had

It’s difficult for me to think of strong arguments that challenge the second set of perspectives on equity , not because I’m dead-set against students returning to school, but because I share the conviction of critical scholars and MTI that a return to normalcy should not be our goal. However, I realized something in conversations I have had with STEAM educators at public schools outside of MMSD, who have simultaneously been teaching in-person and remotely since September 2020. Despite all the reasons to postpone reopening and prioritize transformation, schools do have two things they can offer right now: access to materials and social connection.

A lot of conversation around education technology focuses on access to computers and high speed internet. However, the reality for some students is that, at home, they don’t have access to basic learning technology like scissors, paper, or pencils. The lack of these materials at home does not, in any way, reflect how much families value education and learning. For instance, education was valued highly in my family, but you’d be hard pressed to find tape or glue in our house (the need for which came up often in K-12). Sometimes, basic materials that students need for projects and assignments are the lowest priority on a shopping list because of financial reasons. Or, as it was in our case, because at 9 years old I wasn’t reliable enough to remind my parents to buy tape when we were at K-Mart. 

The importance of access to paper and pencils lies not in their symbolic educational value, but in the ways they help students think. Tools and materials can help us make sense of what we’re supposed to be learning. For instance, having pencils allows us to write down our ideas and erase them, and treat learning as a flexible process of revision. A pencil encourages mistakes, and encourages us to change our mind with new information (which is to say that it allows learning to occur). Classroom desks and floors were purchased knowing full well that they would be covered in glue, because learning can be messy; it’s likely that the kitchen table at home was not. Even our most simple tools shape how we learn.  

Additionally, while students from vulnerable populations may not feel welcome or supported in the larger culture of schooling, they may still have important social connections that they can only access when they’re at school. Even when students can’t be sitting next to each other, interpersonal connections can bring students joy and help them feel a small sense of community outside of their homes. As we know, becoming social beings through friendship and mentorship is a huge part of school. What happens in the lunchroom is just as important for youth as what happens in the classroom. And during a pandemic any amount of social connection must be better than nothing. Right?

The reality on the ground

I hope unpacking both of these perspectives has demonstrated, at least a little, how challenging the issue of returning to in-person instruction is. Anyone who claims that the answer is clear and obvious is selling something. But just discussing these two sets of arguments does not tell the complete story of MMSD reopening. The reality on the ground is that, regardless of your feelings about how schools operated prior to the pandemic, students are not returning to “normal” when they return to school.

Aside from wearing masks and sitting three to six feet apart, students and their families will have to adapt to many changes. For instance, as MMSD’s reopening plan now shows, only first through fifth grades have the option of four full days of in-person instruction. The rest (4K and grades 6 through 12) can attend up to two days of in-person instruction, and will follow a cohort model where half the students return on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the other half on Thursday and Friday. (Monday continues to be for virtual, asynchronous instruction, and allows for three days consecutive days of cleaning.) However, the most recent MMSD survey found that 32 percent of MMSD students plan to continue with remote instruction. This means teachers must provide a hybrid or concurrent model of schooling that is accessible to students in school and at home simultaneously. Additionally, all students have the option to return to remote learning at any point.     

Think about it. Prior to the pandemic, many of us marveled at the challenging job teachers had of preparing our children and future generations to (a) matriculate and (b) know enough (about themselves and academic subjects) to join the workforce after high school or go on to college. Now, they are being asked to do all of that while seeing students between two and four times a week, and dividing their attention between students in class (Roomies) and at home (Zoomies—as a Kindergarten teacher friend affectionately calls them). All the while, with the threat of COVID-19 and its variants still looming, educators must also enforce new behavioral and bodily restrictions. 

One MMSD teacher shared her concerns with me recently about the concurrent model for teaching. She warned, in our email correspondence, that there will be “a significant drop in academic instruction, and an increase in the amount of time lost to procedures for health and safety that were not necessary during virtual learning.”

She continued: “Concurrent teaching is not best practice, and it provides significantly less valuable instructional time than our current model of online instruction. The move to concurrent teaching will weaken the virtual experience, as virtual students will have to wait for their class and teachers to do things like bathroom breaks, wash hands, sanitize surfaces, put things away one-at-a-time, etc. Virtual students will also necessarily have their schedules changed to accommodate for the schedules of in-person students.” 

With the concurrent model, this teacher told me, “teachers are forced to do three jobs at once: teach virtual students, teach in-person students, and monitor for social distancing and mask wearing. Those are two full time jobs plus COVID patrol. When we go back in person we are no longer allowed to share the teaching load, so teachers will be spread even thinner.” 

For those who are unfamiliar with teaching, only a fraction of the work involves teachers providing instruction. Teachers also spend hours creating lesson plans and content materials—and will have to double those efforts in a concurrent model—as well as planning, prepping, assessing, and grading. And through my experience teaching and working with teachers on developing assessment tools and practices for remote learning, I can tell you that assessing and grading remote learning could be its own part-time job.

The MMSD teacher I corresponded with went on to say that with staff being put into very difficult situations, and being denied accommodations that keep them safe, “they are forced to either take unpaid leave or sacrifice their health or that of their family.” And “talented and dedicated teachers and staff have already left the classroom because of this impossible choice.”

Additionally, resources on the MMSD website illustrate what in-person schooling will look like. For instance, students will not be able to hang out together in their usual gathering places. In fact, to maintain six feet of distance, students will not be able to move freely around the classroom or the halls. The buildings will be tightly coordinated and supervised. Some changes may include: 

  • Students will enter through one designated entrance

  • The halls are marked with arrows to indicate traffic patterns that students and staff must follow

  • Lockers will not be used and students must carry all necessary belongings in their backpacks

  • Students may not sit together during lunch; individual desks will be provided for students to sit at all six feet apart and facing forward

  • The number of students in the bathroom at a time will be limited and open stalls will be staggered  

  • At least at the elementary level, students will continue to work on their Chromebooks while in the classroom 

  • In-person class expectations should be closer to virtual learning rather than the classroom pre-pandemic

Schools have shared various resources, like pictures or videos of what the building will look like, to help prepare students for the changes they’ll experience. Below is an image of the cafeteria at West High School for context. Imagining students sitting quietly at individual desks at lunch and in class, all six feet apart and facing forward makes my stomach sink. That may be the traditional layout many of us were educated in, but scholarship from the learning sciences and politically engaged educational research encourages a more dynamic and just vision of learning.


As resilient and adaptable as young people are, one can imagine the strain these strict regulations will put on students, teachers, and staff. Moreover, I wonder how these rules will be enforced. I wonder if students will see an increase in suspensions or be forced to return to remote learning as a punishment if they consistently walk down the wrong side of the hallway. I wonder if there’s any reason to believe that historical trends in which youth color are disciplined and suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers will magically resolve with these new rules.

Mounting political pressures

As if the practical challenges of a hybrid/concurrent model of schooling and maintaining student and staff safety are not enough, there are other factors at play that likely influenced MMSD’s decision to begin a phased reopening. 

Firstly, although MMSD held out longer than most, it must have been difficult to continue justifying remote schooling with surrounding districts like Verona Area School District and Middleton Cross Plains Area School District beginning phased reopenings in January and February respectively, and with pressure from parents in Dane County building. Secondly, there has been added pressure from Assembly Republicans and the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee to resume in-person instruction or endure a financial penalty. 

In an already difficult time when impossible decisions have to be made, and ought to be made locally, coercion by the state government for districts to reopen regardless of their COVID-19 rates is irresponsible and overreaching. As positive COVID-19 test rates continue to rise, one can only hope that MMSD and other districts will be prepared to continue making difficult decisions, even if they result in a return to remote learning. 

Advice for MMSD educators

When I first began writing this article, I reached out to STEAM teachers I know outside of MMSD—the same teachers I work with on developing assessment tools and practices grounded in goals and values for student learning, rather than judgement of their learning. As I mentioned previously, many of them had been teaching a concurrent model since September 2020. I asked them a few questions about their experiences. What struck me most was the advice they wanted to share with MMSD educators engaging in concurrent teaching for the first time.  

One teacher, who lamented how her classroom students had to be silent so her remote students could hear her, shared this advice: “Try to drink a lot of water when you can, because talking through a mask and shield loudly enough so your students can hear you at home and at school can cause throat irritation. I lost my voice for 4 days at the beginning of the year because I wasn’t used to this. Try to plan so you don’t talk all day long as well; this requires you to adjust your way of teaching from what you would normally do. It is also difficult to drink enough water when you are wearing a mask and shield, but it is important.”

Another teacher had this to say to MMSD teachers: “Remember that your kids are going to try their best to follow rules and regulations for social distancing. I cannot give kids enough credit for how they have gotten through this year. Don’t yell at students when they make mistakes, or tell other teachers’ kids what to do. Let homeroom teachers communicate to students, because you don’t know how often a student has been told to pull their mask up during the day. Celebrate and provide affirmations as much as possible to teachers. Be polite. Be mindful of everyone’s emotions. The teachers are going to be tired. Do not hold meetings after school. Let them go home and take a break.” 

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